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Ex-pat in Bahrain

April 24, 2012 1 comment

A view and written by my Father, an ex-pat in Bahrain:

Well it happened! What a great event put on at the Bahrain International Circuit – a true carnival of motor sport. Even a few spots of rain in the desert did not spoil this parade! I half expected Vettel to perform well – much like he did here two years ago before mechanical failure ended his day prematurely. He turned in a truly accomplished performance from the moment the red lights went out to taking the chequered flag.

For those interested in the support card; a day of contrasting fortunes Siedler in the Porsche Super cup completed an excellent double podium (3-1) as did Rene Rast (1-3). A solid second from Sean Edwards in race one though became 14th after an incident into turn one left him with a punctured rear right and with no Safety Car to bunch the field back up his day was over almost as soon as it had started! At least there is a promising season ahead.

The WGA Supercars ME Championship an Australian copy – produced its own excitement. With some excellent driving, there was a double victory for Batelco Racing Team driver Ramez Azzam. Over the two days, the final rounds of the class took place with championships victory for Alban Varutti. This contrasted with a particularly spectacular example of out-braking at end of Oasis straight, resulting in Nasser Al Alawi sliding across the outfield into the sand trap. His subsequent punching of the vehicle’s roof in frustration was brilliantly caught by some great camera work.
Mention also of GP2 and double victory for DAMS driver Davide Valsecchi. Two terrific drives with spectacular overtaking move on turn one of the last lap in race two, to gain top spot. Fabio Leimar had looked certain to win the second race but by ignoring waved yellow flags incurred a drive through penalty dropping him to 12th.

So as the strains of The Toreador’s March by Bizet fade away who else are left as the real winners and are there any genuine losers?

A winner was Lotus. Raikkonen and Grosjean were the surprise package and a welcome addition to the podium committee along with Vettel and Christian Horner for Red Bull Racing.

Certainly a firm loser was McLaren – two poor pits stops for Hamilton and finally an exhaust failure for Button. Ferrari would have wished for better – as did their drivers both running out of fuel on the slowdown lap the cars being carried in on recovery trucks.

Also a firm loser is the credibility of the western news media who, throughout the weekend, have seen fit to link the GP event with political unrest – even after the opposition openly stated it was because of the GP that they were stepping up their protests to sucker in world attention. Just why Channel 4 believed it correct to enter the country on grand prix tourist visas and then start interviewing protesters is difficult to imagine. Do they not realise that this abuse was unlawful and causes problems for all British workers on the island – ask my wife who was delayed by 45 minutes due to additional security checks after the last batch of activists came in. Perhaps they should be asking why they were refused accreditation in the first place.

As to all the tanks and barbed wire reported as being along the highway to the circuit, plus the ring of steel around the BIC this was complete fabrication. During the three days travelling to and from the circuit I did not see any tanks – yes quite a few police vehicles and three APV’s parked on the circuit perimeter but no more than you would expect and no more security level than a visit to Wembley Stadium.

Sport for the many thousands of fans on Bahrain went ahead without incident. Perhaps it is worth remembering that although Shia hold majority representation, in fact half of the Bahrain population is ex-pat and, along with guests, were clearly in evidence at the Circuit.

Economically the country gained $2-400,000 seems the ball park range. The impact though was best seen in the group of stadium attendants laughing and giving themselves a round of applause after completing their three day stint. Common purpose of a different kind with goals achieved. I am sure they did not earn a lot but a lot better than nothing at all!

All of those here in Bahrain are neither offering judgement on the government nor judging the level of violence which the opposition engaged in. Media seemed content to give them credibility for lobbing half-heartedly Molotov cocktails to incite police? If someone sets out to make a bomb let alone throw it so as to put me in fear, I do not stand and think whether this is even remotely related to a Grand Prix?

Maybe there is success for the moderates in government as King Hamad has reaffirmed his commitment to reform. Bernie Ecclestone’s interview on Press day was direct and the Crown Prince has again gained credibility in trying to navigate the path to peace. Those who relate to Ireland know this will be long. David Cameron in support of the process showed knowledge and understanding in complete contrast to the ignorance should by some Labour MP’s in the UK.

The opposition had their voice heard – they were winners of sort but the violence was not needed. Hopefully both sides can now start talking meaningfully.

But the real success is the fact the event went ahead. The Crown Prince wanted the race to be for the greater good. What the western world does not understand is the bloodbath which has been avoided by the race taking place. It never is good to empower extremism yet it is equally good the ruling monarchy understand not only the significant internal problem but that the eyes of the world have been turned on them. What is needed is increase in pace of reform and to achieve this requires peaceful engagement by all sides.

Did FIA breach its own objectives in taking on the event? Certainly sectors of the media have taken the opportunity to decry F1 as a gaudy spectacle and set it up as supporting a despotic regime. In the latter they failed and contracting with Bahrain was no different to contracting with places such as China and Brazil. Being more pragmatic sport has won – there will now be a vacuum, a chance to draw breath and seek a way to peace. If supporting this race pushes that a small way I for one will be proud to have been part of such a well organised event.

Should F1 race in Bahrain?

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Bahrain has been on the lips of many journalists over the past few weeks in anticipation for the Formula 1 race to be held in the Kingdom over the weekend of the 20th, 21st and 22nd of April.

Once again though sport and politics clash. What started as an all-party Bahraini call for improved constitutional rights has, twelve months on, degenerated into sectarian aggression. For those old enough to understand the religious polarisation in N. Ireland there are stark parallels.

To gain some perspective and understanding it is crucial to point out that Bahrain is a Sunni led government with a Shia Muslim majority people. The security forces comprise Sunni’s though many do not have Bahraini ancestry. For many years Shia have considered themselves the underclass and have been treated as second class by the Sunni monarchy who has consistently favoured their own sect. Many felt though opportunities for Shia were better than similar unfavoured classes in the region which coupled with a feeling of Bahraini first had led to a peaceful co-existence.

The geopolitical position of Bahrain in the in the Gulf has also to be understood. Linked by causeway to eastern Saudi Arabia and its oil fields it faces, across the water, Iran. Bahrain is also home to the US Fifth fleet, demonstrating why it is so important to Western economic and security interests.

Bahrain’s unrest which led to cancellation of last year’s Grand Prix came on the coat tails of the Arab Spring – the wave of civil unrest which swept N. Africa and into the Middle East and indeed still continues today in Syria.

The crackdown though was brutal even in Arab terms and with free reign given to the security forces backed by Peninsula shield troop’s sent in from Saudi Arabia, human rights abuses did one could say inevitably occur. Remember Mubarak in Egypt had fallen, Tunisia had changes and all eyes were on how long Gaddafi in Libya would last. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas and the reaction from hard liners in the ruling family was entirely predictable. Remember also that the Crown Prince all but pulled off a peace deal – which side scuppered it at the last moment remains one for the historians.

King Hamad though took the unprecedented step to set up an independent commission to deal with the failings and accepted without reservation recommendations for future reform published with final report on 23 November 2011.

This gave an unparalleled opportunity for the opposition Al Wefaq National Islamic Society to enter into serious dialogue.
Talking, as in Ireland, takes time. Healing will take even longer.
Wary Al Wefaq remain and it is only time which will judge the success of the road to unification – if indeed it can be achieved.

What is true though is that reforms are in progress; some still remain interned, even on hunger strike but what is more disappointing is the continuing apparently meaningless daily violence. Burning tyres on highways, Molotov cocktails thrown into schools, gas bottle explosions, even beating of Asian ex patriot’s interference with daily life of the working population has an attritional effect.

The response by the now monitored security forces is measured but the drone of helicopters and use of tear gas during regular confrontations shows that divisions continue to run deep. Let us be clear the Sunni Royal family are not going to cede power yet are setting about improving life for its population. This is difficult with the economy on the rocks and limited oil revenues – it relies on support from its GCC counterparts.

At the end of last year most believed in the UniF1ied banner, that the GP was part of the healing process. Only in recent months has it become a fulcrum over which sectarian see-saw has swung.
The level of violence has risen with casualties of security personnel rising with seven injured in a bombing and others injured as they tried to clear road blocks. Wefaq have resorted to guerrilla style tactics setting alight tyres on roads and raiding shops, throwing Molotov cocktails into schools and burning banks – the attempt to disrupt daily life and thus those coming to visit Bahrain is clear.

They have been supported by the media and some non-government organisations – in particular Amnesty International who are guilty of double standards in not providing a balanced report, have caused a lot of negative speculation, uncertainty and damaging effects to the country and rising the fear in those attending the event.

I am lucky, in some respects, that I am able to receive better information than most due to the fact my parents live in the Bahrain. I had first-hand experience there last year for the GP that did not take place my first Formula 1 race outside of England.

Formula One Management (FOM) and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) called the race off back in 2011 due to the political unrest when the demonstrations were at their highest. Manama the capital had been flooded by protests surrounding the Pearl Roundabout which was ultimately torn down and the intersection remains closed.

While I was there thankfully my Dad and I were able to take a drive and were fortunate enough to cover a lot of ground and I was able to see a lot of Bahrain. Manama was a tricky area to still get in and out of but the surrounding areas at that point were still quiet. We were able to get down to the track and as a facility the Bahrain International Circuit is exceptional. A lot of people dislike the track in Bahrain; there is a lot more to the circuit than meets the eye, notably the undulation changes and it has been further modified since.

I also got to see the oil fields which uniquely give off a form of beauty to the landscape that is otherwise decimated by sand. The only time I personally was affected was when both my Dad and I were on the wrong end of tear gas. Still even after that I did not feel threatened or at any unease. Passing through barricades was no issue when the locals saw you were from the Western World they waved you on by.

I was asked by many friends and family why on earth was I still going to Bahrain when the race has been cancelled. Two reasons, firstly I wanted to see my parents but also I wanted to see experience a new country for myself even if the uprising had broken out. My Dad was asked many times why was he not returning to England, beyond the protests and stereotyping the Middle East he still had to work and peoples day to day lives still continued.

Fast forward to 2012 and the same questions that were being asked prior to the start of the 2011 race are being asked now. I find it difficult to see why though. Bahrain has changed in the past 12 months and while protests still happen they have spread to the smaller surrounding villages and are nowhere near the scale they were when Pearl Roundabout was occupied. The government have promised reform and while minimal changes have been implemented, it was always going to be a long drawn out process for it to be concluded.

It has been asked if Formula 1 should be going to Bahrain because it backs the government making it look like that Bahrain is fine. Bahrain is not fine and will not be for a period of time but it is significantly better than it was. Formula 1 then also has been looked at as a catalyst for Bahrainis to protest and “show the world” through the Formula 1 media what is going on in their country.
Significantly it is Al Wefaq who openly declares they intend disrupting the week leading up to the GP with daily protests. Of equal significance is that these are approved rallies by the government supporting the concept of peaceful demonstration. Let us all hope this remains the case. What is in no doubt is that the government will make sure the event takes place.

Monitoring of this will be the world’s media. It is unfortunate only a few weeks ago that activists from the West thought they could enter Bahrain on visit visas and then join the protests. No country is going to accept this situation. Access has thus become stricter but the same could be said for America for those attending the race in Austin, Texas they are going to need a visa. Dare I mention China – the double standards are obvious.

Two weeks ago my mother touched down in Bahrain and had to wait forty five minutes for clearance but still got through customs after a small amount of questioning. The Formula 1 teams and media have special visas for the country and will be welcomed with warm open arms I expect.

Last year England had protests in London, Manchester and other cities but you do not see Silverstone under any threat. I live in Manchester and was very close to the violence. In the space of a few months I had gone from protests in the Middle East to protests on my doorstep. The reality is that all countries have their political problems. The world is not in a very healthy state as it is. A few years ago local Brazilians attempted to kidnap Jenson Button while driving away from the circuit. Sao Paulo is still on the calendar and no one has said anything.

The media as ever have massively blown up what is going on because it is the Middle East and it is an easy target due to the religious state of the region. Mexico is vying to have a Formula 1 race in the next few years. The police and government are in a constant head to head battle with drug cartels and yet Mexico might get a race. China has daily human rights questions hung above its head and they blacked out Twitter and Facebook. Russia hosts its first race in 2013 and is hardly renowned for warm welcoming hospitality.

Bahrain is no worse than any other country on our planet but because it is small, vulnerable, in the middle of the two power houses of Iran and Saudi Arabia the media and I include social media sites think they can swarm all over.

Even if Bahrain was not going through the current unrest it is going through, should Formula 1 race there anyway? My answer is why not. Every country we visit has some form of unrest or some sort of dispute. Human rights are questioned in every country in what is “right” or “fair” for a country in the first instance it is for them to decide – Syria is a case in point as to how the international community wishes to respond.

So where does this leave the contractual position. Frankly it is in neither side’s interest for the event to be cancelled but Al Wefaq will step up their protests like, just as a hooked fish, the media reacts.
As long as safety is guaranteed the right to demonstrate peacefully can go ahead.

Freight and display cars have already arrived: Today the main circus lands. The GP is on despite the last minute protestations on top on the Bahrain Embassy in London (why did Met Police not see that coming?) or Amnesty International being given air time.

Next week the paddock and western media move on, what then, Bahrain 2013?

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